A Green Alternative to Street Life

Creating Avenues of Opportunity In Nature

Most SCA members will tell you they are motivated by a love of nature, a concern for the environment, or a desire to give back. However, when asked what prompted him to toil through a long, hot summer, Joshua George ruefully shook his head. “Jail,” he replied.

In Chicago, where gun violence claims nearly 10 victims each day, SCA is partnering with the Emerson Collective’s CRED program (Create Real Economic Destiny) to give young adult gang members a productive alternative to street life. The concept is simple: replace weapons with work. In the first phase of a multi-year pilot program, this summer SCA provided a dozen young men—all between the ages of 19 and 24—with living-wave jobs in the Chicago Park District.

Nineteen-year-old Deion Brown was primed to change his ways. “I was tired of doing all those negative things, watching my back,” he says. “I just wanted to become a man and do the right thing. The same hustle I was giving to the streets, I’m just giving it to the positive now.” After maintaining city gardens and trails, Deion has set his sights on starting a landscaping business “where I can be my own boss.”

As they distance themselves from their former activities, it’s common to hear crew members express entrepreneurial dreams. One wants to produce music, another wants to open an auto repair show. The Emerson Collective was established by Laurene Powell Jobs; former city schools chief and Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan is its managing partner.

Others provide life-coaching and counselling, and it’s clearly making a difference. “The people helping us didn’t expect nothing in return except for us to succeed. I’ve never met nobody like that, “ declares Ivory Johnson, Jr. “They gave us a chance and I wanna take what I learned to help people change their street ways and know they can be somebody.”

Joshua George, whose seven months in the Cook County lock-up convinced him to make a course correction, says Ivory’s intention to help others is more than mere altruism. “Giving back is one way to look at it, but we’re just trying to be better,” he asserts. “Us being better citizens, not being part of the negative lifestyle, makes it better for the whole community.”

As they apply mulch along the Burnham Wildlife Corridor, crew members admit to a handful of early skirmishes linked to old rivalries but stress they’ve since formed a genuine brotherhood. For the first time in year, they feel safe, hopeful, and even happy. They appreciate the chance to start over and are determined to define their own destiny—the “D” in CRED. “We want to show that we can do something better than what we used to do, the violence and negativity,” Says Bruce Knights, 24. “We all got some creative folks and creative minds. There’s a lot of leaders here.”

Here are the participants, in their own words:

Deion Brown: “I was tired of doing all those negative things, watching your back. I just wanted to transition over, become a man, and do the right thing. The same hustle I was giving to the streets, I’m just giving it to the positive now.”

Ivory Johnson, Jr. “The people helping us didn’t expect nothing in return except for us to succeed. I’ve never met nobody like that. They gave us a chance and I wanna take what I learned to help people change their street ways and know they can be somebody.”

Marcus Ashby: “It’s hot, yeah, but you’re outside all day. A lot of people can’t even see the outside, they got no freedom at all. So it’s fun just knowing I’m safe, and I ain’t gotta worry about nobody looking for me, shooting, none of that. I made a lot of stupid mistakes in my past. I’m definitely trying to better myself.”

Joshua George: “It’s easy to get in trouble but it’s hard to get out of it. Us being better citizens, not being part of the negative lifestyle, makes it better for the community as a whole.” 

Emile Fritzner: “I was a product of my environment and, yeah, I contributed to that, but I was like, man, I gotta look at my nieces and nephews. Are they gonna look up to me and follow in my footsteps? Naw, I want something better for them so I gotta change myself first.”

Hayden King: “Everybody be, like, ‘Bro, I’m so proud of you. Two years ago, you was at your lowest, homeless, and now look at you!’ It wasn’t easy. Mostly keeping my mind set to positivity and keeping that straight line to my dream.”

Bruce Knights: “We want to show that we can do something better than what we used to do, the violence and negativity. We all got some creative folks and creative minds. There’s a lot of leaders here.”

Kyle Reid, crew leader: “When I was younger, I was given plenty of chances to screw up, fail, and end up in a similar spot. They say every other hour, somebody gets shot in Chicago, and one in three Black men have been in prison. It’s only a statistical thing that I got out and I’ll do anything I can to increase those odds for people coming up like me.”

Gary Porter, crew leader: “I am impressed by the resilience of these young men. Almost every week, they tell us that someone they know has been killed, sometimes even family members, or some other serious family issue. These young men are down for a little while, but they push through and continue to work.”